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BIG WORLD UNDER ONE ROOF VALLEY INDOOR SWAP MEET'S VENDORS OFFER EVERYTHING FROM CULTURAL ARTIFACTS OF FAR-OFF SITES AROUND THE GLOBE TO FLOOR MATS THAT HELP KEEP YOUR FEET FIRMLY IN PLACE.

Byline: Gregory J. Wilcox Staff Writer

CANOGA PARK - When Sue Weitkamp stalks bargains, she bypasses the discount stores, glitzy shopping centers and Ventura Boulevard boutiques for a plain, two-building complex in the 6700 block of Variel Avenue that houses the Valley Indoor Swap Meet.

The Northridge resident has been a fan of the Canoga Park facility for years and makes shopping excursions there about once a month. Sometimes Weitkamp just browses, other times she buys.

``There's variety, I can come out here and be casual, and I just never know what kind of treasures I'll find,'' Weitkamp said, adding that the customers and vendors are quite a friendly group.

For shoppers like Weitkamp, those finds can range from fresh vegetables for under a dollar to a $35,000 diamond ring, vintage Rolex watch, car and truck floor mats, or a reconditioned hot tub.

The swap meet opened in 1983, a track record long enough to qualify it as a San Fernando Valley institution since it has survived economic cycles and a changing retail landscape that forced some bigger centers out of business or into major makeovers.

At the Swap Meet, though, the shopping experience has remained a constant: no frills and what's grown into an eclectic mix of 400 merchants spread over 100,000 square feet of space.

Jackie Fernandez, partner in the retail services practice at Deloitte & Touche in Los Angeles, said that this is definitely a successful retailing model.

``In a way it's a treasure hunt. You go in there never knowing what you are going to find, but there will be some good bargains and interesting items,'' she said.

Fernandez said she was also impressed by the wide range of merchandise available at the Valley Indoor Swap Meet.

The name, it turns out, is clever marketing, too.

The phrase swap meet evokes the image of an informal, outdoor shopping bazaar where price negotiation is the norm and cash holds sway over plastic.

It's just the opposite at the swap meet, though. Sure, there is some price haggling, but the merchants are happy to take credit cards.

And that's by design, agreed Glenn Malkin and Stuart Siegel, the business' owners.

``The perception of a swap meet is that there will be a lot of cash, but that's not the case. You can't compete unless you take credit cards,'' Malkin said.

Siegel said they run the business like it is a mall since space is leased to the vendors, but they also want shoppers to have a good experience. Their toughest job might be balancing the product mix.

``Certainly, we get our money from the vendors, but we are geared toward the public, because if they are happy, we are happy,'' Siegel said. ``You have to allow a lot of competition, but at the same time we don't want to kill the vendors.''

In the early 1980s, Malkin was managing some jewelry operations for big retailers like Sears Roebuck & Co. in the New York City area and one day happened upon a flea market in one of the suburbs. Since there was nothing like this in the Valley at the time he brought the concept west.

The swap meet opened with more than 200 vendors.

``From Day One it was just phenomenal. We had something like 14,000 people show up on opening day,'' Malkin said.

Today, Malkin and Siegel also operate indoor swap meets in Panorama City and Indian Hills Mall.

Since the leases are month-to-month, the shopping landscape frequently changes.

But for Agoura Hills resident Ani Aslanian, the swap meet has almost turned into a career.

Her Image Truck and Auto, an accessories business, has been a tenant at the swap meet since it opened. She also sells diamond blades for concrete saws.

A native of Addis Abba, Ethiopia, Aslanian got into the business making seat covers for cars and trucks.

Today, she is a font of knowledge about after-market automotive products and has built up a client base over the years.

She likes the facility's ambience.

``It's not just a swap meet, it's like a minimall. I have regular customers who drive many miles to come here on the weekend,'' she said.

Her best-selling item is a set of floor mats priced at $11.95, though business is a series of peaks and valleys.

One recent day, her first customer brought back a dash cover and wanted his money back. She refunded it, but since it was a credit card transaction it cost her $5.

``This is hard-earned money,'' she said of her livelihood.

Calabasas resident Richard Leigh has been at the swap meet for eight years, selling antique jewelry acquired by scouring estate sales. His display case contains watches by Concorde, Rolex, IWC and other high-end manufacturers.

He waited quite a while for a space to open up, because vendors know lots of potential customers pass through.

``They are much more knowledgeable than they used to be,'' he said of the swap meet shoppers.

There are exotic as well as expensive wares for sale.

Stop by Sherman Oaks resident Sammy Sin's booth and a quick lesson in Chinese history is provided free of charge.

Sin sells a variety of Chinese artifacts he picks up on twice-a-year trips to the Orient, and he is especially fond of the Mud Men, brightly painted statues etched in fine detail.

Centuries ago the peasants with no money would go to the river to collect mud and then mold it into statues, Sin explained. Eventually, the ruling class discovered these treasures, took possession of them, and that made them famous works of art.

One of the most expensive items in his shop is a solid brass statue of General Kwan, which has an asking price of $395.

The buyer will get more than a piece of art, though. They are also getting some peace of mind, Sin explains.

``People like to put him in the house to keep away the evil spirits,'' he said.

CAPTION(S):

5 photos

Photo:

(1 -- color) Elaborate dolls await discriminating customers at Michael Morrione's booth at the Valley Indoor Swap Meet, a shopping nexus since 1983.

(2 -- 3 -- color) Owners Glenn Malkin and Stuart Siegel stand outside the Valley Indoor Swap Meet building in Canoga Park. At left, shoppers cruise for bargains, basics or unusual items on a recent Sunday at the Valley Indoor Swap Meet.

(4) Richard Leigh of Calabasas sells jewelry he's gathered from estate sales to patrons of Canoga Park's shopping mecca.

(5) Racks of casual footwear draw shopper Mor Oshi to the Fay Shoe Store booth at the Valley Indoor Swap Meet.

Hans Gutknecht/Staff Photographer
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Copyright 2001, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Title Annotation:Business
Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Date:Jul 22, 2001
Words:1105
Previous Article:BAXTER LEASES SPACE IN PARK.
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